Category: Mary Lou Lord

Lost Voices: Holly Figueroa O’Reilly’s Final Covers Album
+ bonus coverage from Mary Lou Lord, Feist, Linda Thompson, & more

November 18th, 2011 — 12:22 am

One of the reasons I am so busy these days is that as a baritone, I am in high demand for local choirs and stage productions. It’s not just that I’m loud: As a trained vocalist, a stage actor, and a teacher, I pride myself in my control of tone and pitch and projected volume – all the subtle ways I have learned to shape sound to maximum effect in a variety of venues.

It’s part of my identity: a nurtured talent, grown and trusted. When it is tired, I can feel it; when it is under siege, from nasal drip and overuse, I feel depressed and impotent.

And if it ever went away, I’d feel the loss profoundly.

I have nightmares in which I lose my voice forever, and these fears are not unfounded: it happens. Feist, for example, lost her voice on the cusp of fame the first time around, belting it out as a member of a punk band in the early nineties before taking several years off due to vocal damage. Though she’s since turned the remaining fragile, burned-out whisper into an asset – admirably, instead of sinking into despair, she was able to find another sort of beauty in the torn remnants of what was once clear and sweet – the damage could not be undone.

I’m not so sure I could do what she has done. It takes a measure of humility which I do not possess, and cannot truly understand, to remake the voice like that.

And there’s no guarantee that I’d have the chance, either.

Sadly, though some singers, like Feist, have managed to turn vocal disaster into an asset, and others, like Adele, find that the damage they have done through an early career of belt and bellow vocal style is treatable and restorable, for many singers, such a middle ground is not possible. Despite recent reports of vocal restoration, there’s a difference between damage – which can often be fixed with care, and subsequently avoided through retraining – and the more extreme cases. When disease is the diagnosis, for many, it’s permanent.

And losing the voice permanently, or even semi-permanently, is like a little death, or a death sentence, for musicians. It’s not as uncommon as you think, and it can be caused by any one of a set of medical issues, from the lungs to throat to vocal chord: Mary Lou Lord, for example, a contemporary of the Boston grunge and busker scenes who trends towards punk folk in her better moments, lost hers to spasmodic dysphonia, and though she is currently recording a new covers album, putting her back on our radar, she still struggles with the disease, which has kept her off the scene for quite some time; the same disease also kept folk musician Linda Thompson from recording and touring in the early eighties, since which she has produced just two albums.

Joni Mitchell lost as much as two octaves, and her vocal purity, to years of smoking. Julie Andrews lost her singing voice permanently to surgery after developing nodules on her vocal chords through overuse in 1997 – a surprisingly common phenomenon in older singers of both genders. And Bridget Matros, who got a promising start in college with a debut recording alongside fellow students Josh Ritter and Guy Mendilow at Oberlin college in the late nineties, lost hers to acid reflux on the cusp of a promising career; though she did release a four track of abstract, layered vocal garageband experiments this year, they are more art than artifact.

And then there’s contemporary folk singer-songwriter Holly O’Reilly (formerly known as Holly Figueroa), who lost her voice on stage at the Northwest Folklife Festival in 2009, twelve years, two Grammy nominations, and several major label offers into a blossoming and determinedly indie career. A visit to a specialist resulted in a diagnosis of both rheumatiod arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis, a pair of inflamatory diseases which ultimately affected both her voice and her hands, keeping her from singing and playing the guitar for a year – a great loss for O’Reilly, and for the folk community.

Sadly, though drugs ultimately soothed and restored that voice for a while, O’Reilly’s clock is ticking; according to her own bio and facebook feed, the massive doses of steroids she’s been ingesting were doing as much damage to her body as the disease itself. And so O’Reilly made the impossible choice: to give up her voice in order to live without pain, for her family’s sake and for her own. As Holly herself put it at the end of last year,

I am prepared to go off of prednisone completely and to lose my singing voice again. But I wanted to make some records before I did that. I made a live record in May 2010, am finishing up a covers record, and will start an originals record in the fall. And then, I’m probably done, unless my voice comes back spontaneously. (I waited for that for a long time. Not counting on it.)

In One, the covers record in question, O’Reilly is singing on borrowed time, and it shows: her voice changes subtly from track to track. But the songs are sweet nonetheless, and stunning, and poignant with her craft and talent as much as with her history. O’Reilly is strong, though she is clearly affected by her struggle and the ticking clock; all of this and more pours through even the most torn of tracks. And the song choices are inspired: every performance, from covers of REM, U2, Slipknot, Oasis, Paul Westerberg, Springsteen, Tom Petty and Joe Henry, speaks to a wellstorm of emotion, spoken clearly and eloquently, in an act of true song ownership.

Her cover of One Headlight, alone, dark and dirty with dobro, perfectly pitched in every tone, makes this quite possibly the best cover album of the year, a dark horse contender from all the way back in January. Her cover of Freedy Johnston’s This Perfect World is haunting. Her take on Wonderwall breathes a sort of broken life into the song, its slow build into broken hope a triumph of transformative song. Put them against her 2007 cover of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows, recorded before she began her long journey through illness and loss, and – like every other song on this perfect collection – they grow all the more stark, all the more poignant, all the more potent, for the difference.

That these songs represent, in other words, the second act in a final play, the last farewell to a life lived in voice, is not where their strength lies. It is, instead, in the power of the musician, working with a tenacious instrument, and other people’s songs, to maximum effect.

Beauty and pain, and some bonus tracks from O’Reilly’s fellow sufferers, follow below. It’s how they wear their scars that make them beautiful.

6 comments » | Compilations & Tribute Albums, Holly Figueroa O'Reilly, Mary Lou Lord

Elseblog: Springsteen and Guthrie Covers +3 more covers of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning

August 8th, 2008 — 12:47 pm

It’s been a relatively quiet week over at collaborative themeblog Star Maker Machine, but I’m particularly proud of two coverheavy sets I put up earlier this week: a trio of Springsteen carsong covers from Ani DiFranco, Patty Griffin, and Townes Van Zandt, and a short set of tiny Woody Guthrie sillysong Riding in my Car, with covers by Springsteen and Cover Lay Down kidsong fave Elizabeth Mitchell.

Some good guest posts over there this week, too, from a few of my favorite new americana and alt-bloggers; I’m especially glad to see newcomers Payton (of This Mornin’ I Am Born Again) and Nelson (of A Fifty Cent Lighter & A Whiskey Buzz) aboard as regular contributors. Worth checking it all out.

But first, the coverfolk: When I first started sifting through the playlists to see what came up for a car theme, the field was rich; heck, we could probably have done a whole week on Cadillacs, if the current postset is any indication. But passing over all those trainsongs, bus and truckstories, and cycledreams was a good exercise, too: plenty of good music running through the brain at skim speed, plenty of future theme ideas. I’ve already posted versions of Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning by The Mammals (here) and Del McCoury (here); here’s three more live but well-recorded covers of my favorite motorcycle song.

906 comments » | Elseblog, Greg Brown, Jeff Lang, Mary Lou Lord, Richard Thompson

Carolina Coverfolk, Vol. 2: The Songs of Elizabeth Cotten

April 22nd, 2008 — 02:57 am

North Carolina is rich in history and broad in geography, stretching from warm beachfront majesty to the base of Appalachia. That it holds a dominant place in the history of folk music is due in part to its cultural diversity, and in part to its situation midway up the coast, along the route that folk strands might have once traveled from North to South and back again. This combination of factors has made it an influential locus and crossroads for several southern folk movements of the last century, including branches of the blues, appalachian music, and strains of bluegrass, and other early rural folk forms.

Rather than give the musicians and musical forms of this diverse region shorter shrift than they deserve, instead of our typical biweekly megaposts, this week we offer several shorter features on the coversongs of and from a few North Carolinan songwriters who made their mark on folk music long before the sixties transformed American folk from cultural phenomenon to a true genre. It is a tribute to their indelible influence and stellar songwriting that that these songs are still treasured in performance today.

Today, we begin our journey with the songs of Elizabeth Cotten (1896? – 1987; born Carrboro, North Carolina).

Like many early folk musicians born at the turn of the century, Elizabeth Cotten had two careers: one in her early years, as a self-taught blues folk prodigy, and one later in life, when the folk revival of the fifties and sixties drove a desperate effort to recover and record the authentic sounds of early American folk forms before they could be lost to the ages. Cotten’s story of rediscovery is especially notable for its serendipity: though a few of her songs had taken on a life of their own in the hands of other blues and folk musicians during the forties, Cotten herself had quit making music for twenty five years, only to be rediscovered in the sixties while working as a housekeeper for the Seeger family.

Cotten’s strong songwriting and original upside-down “Cotten picking” guitar style, with its signature banjo-like low-string drone and alternating fingerpicking bass, would eventually result in a star turn on seminal disks and collections from the Smithsonian Folkways label, many culled from home recordings made under the reel-to-reel direction of Mike Seeger in the nineteen fifties. The support of the Seegers and others, and the subsequent success of her first album, the 1957 release Folksongs and Instrumentals, brought her onto the folk circuit, where her unique sound influenced the burgeoning folk movement, and where her songs would be heard, recorded, and passed along by the likes of Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Peter, Paul and Mary.

In the end, though only four albums of her original material were ever released, Cotten remained a celebrated member of the folk touring scene into her late eighties, winning a Grammy in 1985 for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording for Elizabeth Cotten Live! a year after being named a “living treasure” by the Smithsonian. Her music continues to be celebrated today for its timeless and distinctive qualities, and for the way it speaks to a childhood among the simple folkways of the rural North Carolina south. And her influence as a songwriter, a guitarist, and an artist echoes in the work of generations.

Today, a few covers each of two of Cotten’s most familiar songs: two fragile kidfolk versions of Freight Train, which was written when Cotten was eleven, and a full set of folkvariants on the timeless Shake Sugaree, from the hearty tones of folk blues legends Chris Smither and Taj Mahal to the delicate second-wave folk field recordings of indie newcomer Laura Gibson and the previously-featured grunge-folk goddess Mary Lou Lord.

As always, artist and album links above lead to the most authentic, the most honest, and the most local places to buy music: from the artists and labels themselves. The Elizabeth Cotten originals, especially, are core must-haves for any true tradfolk collector; pick up her three solo albums at Smithsonian Folkways.

Assuming the weather doesn’t keep knocking out the network, stay tuned throughout the week for a short half-feature on Bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs, and a piece on the work of Doc Watson, yet another North Carolina fingerpicker. Meanwhile, I’l be sitting on the back porch, local brew in hand, watching the sun set over the sound and the North Carolina mainland, while the wild deer and the goslings root for grub in the low grass below. Y’all come back now, y’hear?

[UPDATE 4/27: Great minds think alike: head on over to For The Sake of the Song for an almost-simultaneous post on Shake Sugaree that includes the seminal Fred Neil cover and the Elizabeth Cotten original!]

1,022 comments » | Chris Smither, David Grisman, Elizabeth Cotten, Elizabeth Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, Laura Gibson, Mary Lou Lord, Taj Mahal